The Rise of the House of Medici
The House of Medici was an Italian banking family and political dynasty that de facto ruled the city of Florence during much of the Italian Renaissance.
5 Feb 20 · 12 mins read
The Rise of the House of Medici
By Marco Stojanovik
The House of Medici was an Italian banking family and political dynasty that de facto ruled the city of Florence during much of the Italian Renaissance. The Medici dynasty first began to gather prominence under Cosimo de’ Medici in the Republic of Florence during the first half of the 15th century. He ruled mostly from behind the scenes, using his vast fortune to control the Florentine political system and patron humanist arts and architecture. In doing so he encouraged the flowering of the Renaissance in Florence and paved the way for successive generations of the Medici family to shape much of Florentine politics and culture.
Growth of the Medici Family Bank
Cosimo de’ Medici’s power in Florence derived mostly from his immense wealth as a banker. The Medici Bank, founded by Cosimo’s father Giovanni de’ Medici, was the largest and most profitable business across Europe in the 15th century and facilitated his rise to political prominence.
Giovanni had not always been rich; his own father Averado detto Bicci had divided his inheritance amongst his wife and five sons leaving none well off. Being a member of the Medici family had helped Giovanni though as he began his career dispatched to Rome at a local branch of his uncle Vieri de’ Medici’s bank. Giovanni had an aptitude for banking, rising through the ranks to become manger of the Rome branch and, when Vieri retired and dissolved his business, taking over the branch’s assets and liabilities. In 1397 he established a head office in Florence officially founding the Medici Bank.
Competing against more than 70 other bankers and bill-brokers in the Florence Giovanni worked astutely to ensure the bank’s success. Due to a smart choice in managers and substantial capitalization the bank was able to expand quickly over the next two decades with branches opening up across Italy in Rome, Venice, Genoa, Naples, and Gaeta.
A good relation with the Papacy was a major boost to the success of the bank. Previously, the Curia had dealt mostly with other Florentine banking houses, mainly the Alberti, the Spini and the Ricci. But more business came the Medici family’s way after the election of Cardinal Baldassare Cossa (later known as Pope John XXIII) as one of the rival popes during the Western Schism. In 1402 Baldassare approached Giovanni for a loan to purchase the office of cardinal. Giovanni took a gamble knowing he was running for the Papacy and that if the Medici bank could handle the financial affairs of Curia it could establish itself as one of the major commercial institutions in Europe. Over the next 8 years he continued to act as a banker for Baldassare Cossa proving his competence, trustworthiness, and loyalty.
When Baldassare eventually claimed the Papacy in 1410 he repaid Giovanni by putting the Medici Bank in charge of all papal finances. This in turn attracted trade form cardinals, prelates, and sundry advisers who made it their business to attend the Court of Rome. As such the bank received an astonishing amount of business with its two Rome branches accounting for well over half of profits.
Astute maneuvering by Giovanni further raised the prestige of the Medici Bank and the family’s social standing – even when profits were threatened following the Council of Constance (1414-1418). The Council was convened by the Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund to once and for all resolve the Great Schism and the sole spiritual ruler of Christendom. It was here ruled that John XXIII had conspired against the church and he was disposed and incarcerated in Heidelberg Castle in 1415. In turn the Medici Bank lost charge of papal finances. When John XXIII was put up for ransom of 28, 500 Rhenish guilders (35, 000 florins), Giovanni decided to pay it in full – equivalent to almost half of the profits made by the Medici Bank during the 20 years since its foundation.
Giovanni did so knowing there was little prospect of receiving the money back but that it would demonstrate the deep and unfailing loyalty of the Medici family and raise the prestige of the Medici Bank. With rising prestige and status Giovanni was elected gonfoloniere in 1421, the first manifestation of the new Medici political influence. And in 1424 when the Spinni family went bankrupt, leaving Pope Martin V without a banker, the Medici bank once again regained priority.
By 1420 Giovanni Giovanni had mostly stepped back from the Medici Bank leaving operations to his two sons. Cosimo became nominally in charge of the bank, making all the important decisions, leaving his younger brother Lorenzo to look after every day business. The bank developed further in this later period and by 1435 branches had expanded to almost all-important financial markets in Europe to Geneva, Bruges, Avignon, London, and Lübeck.
Cosimo de’ Medici was born in Florence on 27 September 1389. He was educated first at the monastery school of Santa Maria delgu Angeli, then attended the lectures and seminars of Roberto de’ Rossi. It was at this time that a new aptitude for learning was spreading throughout Europe, as previously unknown works of Ancient Greek philosophers were rediscovered, and classical learning and ideals began to become revered. A new humanism was emerging that emphasized freedom of thought over the selfless submission demanded by medieval philosopher-theologians. The humanist movement explored the human potential and was expressed especially in literature, philosophy, and all forms of art. Through his studies Cosimo was brought into contact and befriended the great scholars and intellectuals of Florence leading the humanist movement that would soon spread throughout Europe. Giovanni ensured that Cosimo continued the family business rather than being becoming a humanist scholar himself – but the humanist thought would be a major influence on his later style of rule and patronage of the arts.
Cosimo and his younger brother Lorenzo had been trained from early childhood in the family business of book keeping, managing deposits, transferring funds and making loans. By 1414, at age 25, Cosimo was already showing a considerable promise as a banker, growing rich by issuing letters of credit and making prestige loans to European princes. With absolute confidence in his son, Giovanni ordered him to undertake the exceptional responsibility to accompany John XXIII across the alps to the Council of Constance in 1414.
Following Constance and Pope John XXIII’s disposal, Cosimo returned to Florence, serving twice on the nine-man Signoria – the governing authority of the Republic of Florence – in 1415 and in 1417. He then embarked on a journey across Northern Europe, touring the financial centres of Geneva, Lyons, and Avignon, checking up on Medici correspondents and seeking out prospects for further business. He also established correspondents in Bruges and London, laying the ground for the later expansion of the bank.
In 1416 he married Contessina de’ Bardi, arranged to link the Medici to the prestigious Bardi family. The Bardi had previously run the richest bank in Europe before going bankrupt in 1345. Despite this it was still a respectable and powerful name in Florence. Contessina brought with her the respected nobility of her family and helped elevate the Medici among the influential families in Florentine politics. Cosimo had two sons with Contessina, Piero and Giovanni, as well as a third named Carlo to his mistress slave girl.
With his rising wealth and social status came growing political clout in the Florentine Republic, increasingly employed as an ambassador to Milan (1420), Lucca (1423), Bologna (1424) and the court of Pope Martin V in Rome. In Rome he cultivated influential figures that persuaded Martin V to reinstate the Medici as papal bankers when the Spini family went bankrupt.
After his father’s death in 1429, Cosimo moved into the Medici family palace near Santa Maria del Fiore and year by year he become more influential in Florence.
Imprisonment & Exile
Although Cosimo kept a low profile and avoided flaunting his wealth, he began to pose a threat to other influential families in the city who thought he was dangerously ambitious. In 1433, jealous of the growing authority and hoping to balance the budget by confiscating the Medici fortune, the Albizzi family, who had for long exercised control of the government, attempted a coup. The head of the family, Rinaldo di Messer Maso delgi Albizzi, succeeded in bringing a charge of treason against Cosimo for ‘attempting to raise himself above the rank of an ordinary citizen’ and intending to ferment a revolution in Florence. Cosimo was arrested and imprisoned in a small dungeon in the bell tower of the Palazzo Vecchio.
Albizzi wanted nothing less than Cosimo’s death but soon discovered that the assassination of a wealthy man was no easy feat. The Medici family enjoyed wide support with protests from the populo minuto who were grateful for past favours, several of Florence’s leading families siding with them due to business associations or through marriage, and representations from foreign governments and the pope as customers of the bank. From his cell Cosimo avoided attempts on his life by bribing both the jailer to taste his food for poison beforehand, and the impoverished gonfalonier to reduce the usual death sentence to banishment.
Cosimo accepted the exile, retiring first to Padua and then to Venice. Having foreseen the coup attempt, he had prior transferred his assets and was able to live comfortably and carry on his business. He gained the support of many along the way for accepting exile and refusing to become a part of the long history of deadly intra-city familial rivalries in Florence. From Venice he remained informed of the situation in Florence, avoiding involvement in plots against Albizzi but waiting for the right opportunity for his return.
Meanwhile in Florence, Rinaldo began to coerce the ruling Signoria into increasingly dispotic measures to suppress his formidable critics. Individual supporters of Medici were banished for ten years on a regular basis. Eventually the banishment of Agnolo Acciaiuoli, a respected head of an old family, caused so much resentment against Albizzi that subsequently a number of Medici adherents were elected to the Signoria, including as the gonfaloniere (the chief magistrate). The Signoria soon invited Medici to return to the city. Albizzi’s powerful supporters rallied to prevent his return but slowly, aware of the lessening political and popular support, most also began to desert him.
On 28 September 1434 an official of the Signoria decreed from the rinhiera: ‘’Citizens of Florence! Are you content that a Balia should be appointed to reform the city for the good of the people?’. The crowd responded with an overwhelming shout of ‘Si!’. A Balia of 350 citizens was selected and immediately voted to officially revoke the Medici banishment, while their enemies, the Albizzi and numerous members of other wealthy families were themselves banished from Florence. Cosimo had now been publicly acknowledged as the ruler of Florence.
The Rule of Cosimo
There was no doubt who now held the reins of power upon Cosimo’s return to Florence. Yet rather than accepting a permanent position as a public ruler, Cosimo upheld his father’s advice given on his deathbed to ‘avoid being conspicuous’. Rather than ruling in an ostentatious autocratic style that was common among Italian princes at the time, he pretended to have little political ambition and to maintain the proud Florentine tradition of representative democracy. He went to great lengths to appear as nothing more than a citizen of the republic mixing and engaging in gossip with other citizens. He paraded his virtue by paying the highest taxes in the city, although declaring considerably lower income than the actual amount.
In reality he used his wealth to control much of the government unseen from behind the scenes; his eager supporters stacked government offices and carried out his policies. Pope Puis II reportedly said of him: “Political questions are settled in [Cosimo’s] house. The man he chooses holds office… He it is who decides peace and war… He is king in all but name.”
In 1439 Cosimo’s achieved one his greatest triumphs for Florence securing the city as the host of the Ecumenical Council called to reunify Catholic and Orthodox Christianity. The Pope, Empeoror, patriarch and their retinues all lodged together at the covenant of Santa Maria Novella and met in Cosmo’s own palace. This was a previously unimaginable triumph in Florence and secured Cosimo’s political grip.
Cosimo further relished in foreign affairs, using his diplomatic powers to promote stability in Italy. He discouraged outside powers from interfering in Italian affairs and In 1454 at the Peace of Lodi he brokered a new balance of power between Florence, Naples, Venice, and Milan ending the wars in Lombary (1423 – 1454). The new balance of power created nearly half a century of peace that would enable the Italian Renaissance to develop and flourish.
Florence was at the forefront of the Renaissance art movement. Emerging out of the humanist rediscovery of ancient knowledge and literature, Renaissance artists saw themselves as extending this knowledge. Paul Strathern in The Medici: Godfathers of the Renaisance explains that they “shredded previous stylization and formalism, and although much of the medieval religious symbolism would be retained, this would increasingly be tempered by the artist imbuing his figures with an element of psychological realism.” In doing so renaissance art aspired to teach man about himself and his world in almost a scientific manner.
Through their patronage the Medici were involved in the development of the new art form from. Giovanni di Bicci instilled in his sons that a leading Florentine merchant is not worthy of honour only because of his riches but also has a duty to honour the city of his birth. His first participation in artistic patronage was the bronze north doors of the Baptistery of San Giovanni – by coincidence what is considered by many to be the first great Renaissance work of art.
Cosimo continued to uphold this humanistic civic duty that came with wealth sponsoring poets, philosophers, orators, artist, and especially architects. A new Renaissance city appeared out of medieval Florence as he funded the construction or renovation of buildings from palaces to libraries, churches and monasteries. Even before exile he made magnificent gifts to projects such as the Dominican convent of San Marco, the church and sacristy of San Lorenzo and the chapel and church of the Franciscans at Santa Croce. In later years he employed architects such as Brunelleschi, Donatello and Michelozzo who had all studied the ruins of Ancient Rome and reconstructed their own version of the classical style in Florence. Major projects included Brunelleschi’s crowning of the Santa Maria del Flore with a 138 feet dome, Michelozzo’s Pallazzo Medici, and Donatello’s two large-scale bronzes statues for this palazzo – Judith Slaying Holofernes and David.
Following Cosimo’s death, Florentines bestowed on him the title ‘Father of the Fatherland’. He had ridden Florence of the aristocratic rule of wealthy families and helped usher in the Rennaissance to the city and wider Italy.
Sources used for this article include Florence: The Biography of a City by Christopher Hibbert, The Medici: Godfathers of the Renaissance by Paul Strathern, and the links provided.
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Articles about Italy published by Odyssey Traveller
- The Sicilians and their Kings
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- Secrets of Venice: A History of Espionage
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- The Roman Empire
- Who were the Roman Emperors? The Definitive Guide for Travellers
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External articles to assist you on your visit to Venice and Italy
- 10 Renaissance Masterpieces You Can Only See in Florence
- The Medici Palaces in Florence
- Explore Art and History in Florence’s Best Museums and Galleries
- Florence Art Checklist: 8 Must-See Works of Art in Florence, Italy
- Italy’s many UNESCO World Heritage sites
- The 10 dishes you cannot leave Italy without eating
- History of Italy
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